Sean Kazmar keeps the faith in Gwinnett - should Braves call again

Sean Kazmar still enjoying life at 36 and playing for Gwinnett Stripers.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Gwinnett Stripers

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Gwinnett Stripers

Sean Kazmar still enjoying life at 36 and playing for Gwinnett Stripers.

Sean Kazmar doesn’t have another 12 years, 206 days to wait for his next major league at-bat. He’d be 48 years old by that time, and even for a man who is to doggedness what Dunkin’ is to doughnuts, that might be asking too much.

The man has some work to do on his permanent record. And the sooner the better because baseball may be timeless, but a baseball playing career, even this one, isn’t.

The two at-bats he got last month after the Braves briefly called up Kazmar may have been ballyhooed by baseball romantics from coast to coast. But two pinch-hit groundouts – the first in Chicago, the other in Washington – for a fellow with only 48 big-league plate appearances can leave a mark. So, his lifetime average dipped 10 points from .205 to .195.

Smiling, something he does quite regularly on a ballfield, Kazmar said, “I need to get back and get above the Mendoza line. Those two ABs took me under.”

Ah, but speaking last week from his Triple-A home, Coolray Field in Gwinnett, he added, “At the end of the day I got two more at-bats in the big leagues is how I look at it. I was given an opportunity.”

Kazmar enjoyed a bright flash of fame last month when the Braves called him up nearly 13 years since his last big-league AB (then with San Diego). Nearly 13 years of grinding away in minor league limbo, the past seven-plus – not counting a season lost to COVID-19 – with the Braves’ Triple-A affiliate. It was the longest span between major league appearances by a player in 70 years.

The baseball press covered him in purple prose. Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman called Kazmar’s journey “absolutely incredible.” Braves manager Brian Snitker considered Kazmar’s call-up, “one of the greatest moments of my managerial career because you’re talking about one grinder to another.”

Back in Gwinnett, his manager there, Matt Tuiasosopo, took in that first at-bat from Chicago’s Wrigley Field with his three sons like it was a moon landing. We were recording it on our phones when we were watching it on TV. We didn’t want to miss that moment.”

Kazmar plucked an ivy leaf from the Wrigley outfield wall April 18 and hoped to preserve it as a forever keepsake. But it withered too soon. He retrieved a soggy old baseball out of the tangled outfield growth and then recycled that as an unlikely trophy.

His time with the Braves was even more ephemeral than that ivy leaf. By May 4, Kazmar was shipped back down, this stint in the majors more a shot of espresso than a cup of coffee.

Atlanta Braves' Sean Kazmar Jr. bats during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Chicago. Kazmar Jr. returned to the major leagues after an 13-year absence, pinch hitting for the Braves. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

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Credit: AP

So, what happens after the rush passes and the universe corrects and a dream resets?

For Kazmar, it’s back to the Gwinnett Stripers and a weekend series with the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. It’s back to playing for a manager who is a year younger than he and with players who practically are a generation behind. Back to sharing playing time with those younger teammates who are favored because their future contains more blank pages. Back to digging his cleats into the humble clay of the minors and still counting himself fortunate to be there.

If there has been a comedown for Kazmar since rousing from the fantasy of April – and one wonders how there couldn’t be – the Stripers infielder masks it masterfully.

Kazmar, 36, possesses more unblinking appreciation for being a career almost-major-leaguer than would seem possible. He speaks about his place just up I-85 - so close, yet so far - and you swear Kevin Costner should be delivering the lines.

“A lot of guys end up getting out of the game because they just kind of don’t have that passion or love they once had for it. I’ve seen it year after year with individuals. That’s something that’s never wavered for me,” he said. “I’ve always respected the game, enjoyed the game and had a lot of fun playing it. It’s easy for me to come out here every day.

“It’s the highest level of the minor leagues. I think it’s something to be proud of being in this spot. Every professional baseball player should expect at least 10 years in the big leagues, that’s what they should strive for. That’s not how my story went, but the fact that I’ve been here for almost 10 years, I’d certainly hang a hat on that. I enjoy being here. It’s a great place to play.”

What has made Kazmar’s story even more exceptional is that he is but a fraction of it. His dream is shared by a family that has had to contort and reconfigure to serve it. None of this is possible, first, without a wife who deserves special mention on every Stripers lineup card.

Kazmar met Jen when he was starting his career in 2004 as a fifth-round pick by the San Diego Padres. A former softball player at Arizona State, she already was wired to appreciate the game. Or else, who knows if any of this would have worked?

Since then, they’ve married – more than 11 years now – and Jen has earned a doctorate degree, had two children (boys, the oldest 5), risen to become a K-8 school principal and shifted to an at-home online job as an advisor and academic evaluator for Western Governors University in order to stay connected to the kids.

“I look up to her to this day,” Kazmar said of his wife.

Oh, yeah, and Sean played baseball.

Seattle Mariners second baseman Sean Kazmar hurdles Cleveland Indians' Ezequiel Carrera while relaying to first to complete a double play in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game in Peoria, Ariz., Saturday, March 5, 2011. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)


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An infielder of modest power at the plate, he was 24 when he got his first call-up to the Padres in 2008, appearing in 19 games. George W. Bush was president then. He couldn’t know it at the time, but Kazmar wouldn’t be summoned back to the bigs until three presidents later.

He played all over the place with three different organizations – from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Tacoma, from Binghamton, N.Y. to Peoria, Ariz. – before lighting with the Braves in 2013.

If nothing else, the long posting with Gwinnett has lent the family a semblance of routine, as Jen and the kids post up at the family home in Arizona during the school year and move into one of the apartments near Coolray Field during the summer.

So, you have to ask, if Kazmar never gets another whiff of the majors – a distinct possibility – have those two at-bats been worth the past 12-plus years of compromise and the grind of playing a thousand and more games of developmental baseball?

Without hesitation, Jen answers: “Absolutely, 100%. Getting to see him play the game that he loves and be successful – even at the minor league level – has been something amazing to watch. We’ve been so proud of him throughout the years. Not many people have this long of a career, even on the minor league side. We’ve been so fortunate and blessed.

“We’re always sticking around to see if there’ll be that one more chance. With him still able to play and it still working for our family, we definitely want to stay in it. We got the opportunity finally (last month), and it was great. It was worth every second of it.”

This is a 2019 photo of Sean Kazmar Jr. of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. This image reflects the 2019 active roster as of Friday Feb. 22, 2019, when this image was taken. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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Credit: AP

Born in Valdosta, but raised in Las Vegas, Kazmar was a Braves fan from the beginning. And that one day in April “was my dream come true, to wear an Atlanta Braves uniform in the major leagues,” he said.

If you do not love a game in this unconditional way, it is difficult to understand the path Kazmar and his family have chosen. Nobody kicks around the minors this long. That’s evident by all the Gwinnett Stripers career records that Kazmar holds – games played, at-bats, hits, total bases, doubles, runs, and RBIs – the products of unheard-of longevity.

He’s hitting around .240 this season with three homers (he’s hit .270 or better in four of his past six seasons). Even after 17 years in pro ball, repayments for his commitment to the game can still come in surprise packages, such as his game-winning walk-off single last week. It was the first such hit Kazmar could remember.

Last year would have been a natural stepping off point for the playing part of his baseball life. With the minors on hold because of COVID, Kazmar was back in Arizona collecting unemployment with lots of time to think about his future. But as soon as the lower levels of pro ball began stirring back to life so did his desire to keep playing. He let the Braves know early that he was still interested.

“I let them know that you’re not only getting a guy who’s going to go out there and play as hard as he can every night that his number’s called but a guy who can help these younger guys navigate through a long season in the minor leagues. That’s something I take a lot of pride in,” Kazmar said.

He’s too obvious a fit for coaching and managing one day for that not to be an option. Kazmar said he’s taking a lot of mental notes on how his friend Tuiasosopo works the dugout for when that time comes.

But there’s no rush. “He can still play,” Tuiasosopo said. “I tell him, you keep playing until they rip that jersey off your back.”

When will Kazmar know it’s time to move on to working games from foul territory?

“I’m not sure. Obviously if the body is able to make it through a 140-game minor league season, and I feel good and mentally I feel like I can go out and do it the next year. ... As I stand here today, my plan is to come back and play again next year, if the opportunity is available,” he said.

As long as he keeps his head down and keeps grinding, there will live the chance to get another swing in the majors. Incidentally, one more hit, just one more hit, in one more at-bat, and he’d be well over .200 again.

“It’s all about the opportunities in this game,” Kazmar said. “I tell these guys all the time, you got a number on your back, you have an opportunity. Hopefully, I have a number on my back for years to come.”